Viking StarThe Cruise Critic Editors’ Picks Awards selected the “best new cruise ship” to be the Viking Ocean Cruises’ Viking Star.

I first heard of the Viking Star two months ago when the new cruise ship lost power in Tallinn, Estonia. After a great deal of confusion, the cruise was canceled amidst a storm of controversy. I received a lot of comments from passengers and crew members alike, critical of Viking, on both this website and on our Facebook page.

But it doesn’t seem that any of the Cruise Critic judges were on the Viking Star back in August when its power failed. The judges wrote that the ill-fated ship was a “state of the art cruise liner that has earned rave reviews.” The judges described the cruise ship as having the “charm of a boutique hotel – homely and comfortable after a long day exploring in port. In fact, the ship is so beautifully designed – with terrific afredo restaurants, beautiful pool area, a superb spa and the two-level Explorer’s observation lounge – you will be tempted not to go ashore.” 

Gobbledygook like this drives me crazy. It seems far more relevant to me if the cruise ship has a history of power failure, or fires, and how the company handles an emergency. How are the crew members treated? Cruise Critic is silent on these basic issues.

TripAdvisor, a unit of Expedia, owns Cruise Critic. So hype like this is to be expected, I suppose. The Cruise Critic community is the largest group of cruisers in the world. And they are probably the most fanatical in their love for cruising; however, a discussion of a controversial issue on the CC message boards often turns turns into an ugly brawl. The editors and moderators at Cruise Critic act like cruise industry cheerleaders. Criticize a cruise line? Chances are that your comments will be deleted.

 

Photo Credit: “MS Viking Star passing the O2 dome” by NFH Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – Wikipedia

I first heard of the fires (yes, plural) aboard the Princess Cruises’ Emerald Princess in a cruise review entitled Emerald Princess On Fire!!!

A couple on the cruise ship commented, with no other details, that on the first night (September 16th) "the staff were called to stations because of a fire in the engine room. Unfortunately, we had another fire in the engine room a couple of days into the cruise . . . "

I later found a discussion on Cruise Critic started by a cruise passenger who commented that she was alarmed after the captain’s announcement of a "technical issue" which caused the entire crew to muster. She was even more alarmed by an announcement that "the fire is out" in the engine room. The Princess cruise ship was 7 hours south of Southampton at the time.

Four days later, another passenger commented on Cruise Critic that there has a second fire in the Emerald Princessengine room. "Needless to say its gotten me shaken up. Twice in one trip on my first cruise. Tempted to get off when we reach Italy and cut my holiday short. I’ve asked customer services for more info to put my mind at rest and am still awaiting a call from them to my room with more info. 4 hours after requesting it!!"

The captain eventually made an announcement but the information was limited and seemed to confuse the  passengers. Cruise Critic members began leaving comments about what they thought of fires on cruise ships. 

Cruise Critic members are an odd assortment of people. Some profess technical expertise and condescendingly lecture other members not to worry about why fires break out. "It’s technical," they say. One person commenting said "too much information can cause even more reason to worry." Others expressed blind trust in Princess. The comments ranged from rank speculation minimizing the fires, accusations that others were engaging in "scaremongering," and assurances from the loyal cruise fans that this was just a "mountain out of a molehill." Many Cruise Critic members, commenting from the security of their homes, suggested that the passengers on the ship just "carry on" and not worry about it.  My favorite comment was – as long as the captain doesn’t say "’abandon ship’ you should be ok."

Cruisers scheduled to cruise on the Emerald Princess in the future, however, were not satisfied with this mishmash of speculation and blind loyalty. They asked Princess for an explanation on its Facebook page. 

Princess then left the following comment on its Facebook page:

"The ship experienced two very unusual technical failures on the engines, which caused what turned out to be two very minor fires but which produced smoke in the engine room. The fires were quickly extinguished in both instances, there were no injuries and these fires did not pose a safety threat to passengers and crew. During each incident, in an abundance of caution, the crew was called to their emergency stations. There is no reason to believe that there will be a repeat of these incidents. All the ship’s systems and the ship’s emergency response procedures operated correctly, and the ship is safe. We look forward to welcoming you onboard a safe, relaxing voyage next month!"

Princess’s PR statement hit all of the elements of a corporate spin – the fires were "unusual" (i.e., rare), the fires were "minor," the fires were "quickly extinguished," the crew mustered in an "abundance of caution," the fires "didn’t pose a safety threat to passengers," and the "ship is safe."

But one future cruiser on the Emerald Princess wasn’t satisfied with the corporate gobbledygook and pressed for more information from Princess" 

"I hope due to unusual technical failures on not one but two engines this has been thoroughly checked out and not a quick fix till she reaches America. I heard about it from passengers on board wrote on Cruise Critic.They were worried. Crew did not answer any questions."

Princess responded on Facebook:

"The safety of our guests is our priority. There is no reason to believe there will be a repeat of these incidents. Specialist technicians from the engine manufacturer are traveling to the ship to investigate."

People on a ship who hear the sound of fire alarms and see crew members running to to their fire stations at night in the Atlantic Ocean are bound to feel frightened and uncertain. That’s normal. They are not sheep. They’re going to be inquisitive. That’s normal too. But most cruise ships do a poor job of being transparent with the guests. "It’s nothing" the crew may say. "There was smoke but no fire" is a favorite excuse.  "It’s technical. Don’t worry your pretty head about it," are the responses you may receive by crew members who are trained to reassure the guests but not-admit-anything.

My thought is that all passengers are entitled to receive timely, accurate and honest information about something as serious as a fire on the high seas, no matter how small the cruise line claims the fire is or how rapidly the cruise line claim they extinguished it. Such transparency is vital to ensuring corporate accountability and passenger safety. No one should have to resort to posting on Cruise Critic or Facebook for answers.   

Cruise Critic is not a place to find honest information anyway. Owned by travel conglomerate Expedia / Trip Advisor, it’s a place where members who express natural fear and uncertainty and inquire about dangers on cruise ships are often ridiculed. 

One Cruise Critic fan stated that the thread never needed to be started. "All it accomplished was to get some people needlessly worried and upset. I can’t imagine rushing to the computer to report on an ongoing event without knowing the facts. As it turned out, these were minor events that were dealt with appropriately and didn’t need to be posted and discussed all over the internet . . . I trust Princess to ensure the safety of their passengers and will continue to have faith until something happens to belie that trust. It hasn’t happened in the 12 years I have been sailing on Princess."

Of course the Star Princess ignited just 8 years ago and was caused by the tiniest of fires (a smoldering cigarette). That fire killed one passenger (our clients’ father) and injured and terrified many others as it destroyed 100 cabins. 

But those on Cruise Critic who blindly trust Princess don’t want to talk about that, do they? That would be too upsetting.  

 

Have a thought? Please leave a comment below or join the discussion on our Facebook page.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Holger.Ellgaard Creative Commons 3.0

Two and a half days ago, a cruise passenger on the Carnival Magic emailed us and told us that: (1) the ship was delayed returning to Galveston by fog (2) a fire had apparently broken out on deck 11 causing smoke and ending up with the hallways drenched with water, and (3) a Coast Guard helicopter medevaced an ill passenger from the cruise ship.

The email from the Carnival passenger came to me early Sunday morning shortly after 7:30 AM as the ship waited for the flog to lift and I waited for my first cup of coffee. We emailed Carnival for confirming information, and then published our article around 1:00 P.M. We included Carnival’s comments that a fire allegedly didn’t break out and that the smoke was caused, as Carnival says, by an "overheated electrical component." Carnival also confirmed the Coast Guard helicopter medevac.

We have heard Carnival public relation tweets before that electrical fires causing smoke were not really fires

Cruise Critic - Cruise Industry ShillYou can read our article here: Fire, Fog & Medevac Mar Cruise Aboard Carnival Magic.

Today, two days after we published our article, Cruise Critic published an article entitled: Smoke Scare Onboard Carnival Cruise Ship. The Cruise Critic article discussed the smoke versus fire issue and mentioned that a cruise passenger was medevaced Saturday afternoon and fog caused a delay in the ship getting back to Galveston.

The Cruise Critic article relied on information we released (and spun the story in favor of Carnival) without any credit for the story to us. 

It is the norm in reporting and the world of social media to acknowledge sources of information. For example, when the Daily Mail in the U.K. (one of the most widely-read internet newspapers in the world) writes a cruise story which we break, it will cite us and link to us. You may think that the Daily Mail is sensational, but linking to sources is what reputable, professionals do. For example, read this Daily Mail article based on information in our blog which we broke after a cruise passenger emailed us. 

One thing that we take seriously here at Cruise Law News is being 100% accurate and transparent in crediting the right people and organizations responsible for breaking news stories. None of our stories ever go out without a credit. It does not matter if it’s our rival law firms. If someone had a big verdict against a Miami-based cruise line, we report it. We name the lawyer and include a photograph. No other law firm does that.

If Cruise Critic, USA Today’s CruiseLog, Cruise Currents, CruiseMates or who-know-who breaks a story, we will of course name them and provide a link to their site.

Cruise Critic is a site we have openly acknowledged is the number one blog covering the cruise industry. I have also published rankings showing Cruise Critic is the number one blog covering cruising. 

But it is also a dishonest organization, in my opinion.

Owned by the Expedia travel company, Cruise Critic is often seen as a cheerleader for the cruise lines. We have criticized it for deleting comments on its message boards and censoring members who write about events embarrassing to the cruise industry. It heavily moderates its message boards. It’s the first to write a puff piece for the cruise lines when they need some good news. It’s also known for being a shill for the cruise lines.

Many people criticize us for writing about negative cruise stories and having a vendetta against Carnival and Royal Caribbean. You may not like our opinions. Readers should take our articles with a grain of salt. After all, our motto here is "everything the cruise lines don’t want you to know."  We are often on television, cable news, radio and in newspapers sending our view of cruising out into the stratosphere. We know it is irritating to the hard core cruise fans.

You can disagree and criticize us for our opinions, but you cannot ever fault us for being anything other than honest in crediting the sources of our stories.

Cruise Critic, on the other hand, is not transparent. It takes credit for other’s information. It can be a shill all it wants. But it should not take credit when it is not due.

I suppose, from that perspective, it is the perfect publication to cover the far-from-transparent cruise industry. 

Yesterday several passengers from the Holland America Line Veendam contacted us because they were upset that a passenger went overboard during a cruise to the Mexican Riviera. They returned from the cruise knowing that someone had died at the end of the cruise as the ship sailed back to SanDiego, but they did not know why the passenger went overboard, or whether it was a murder or a suicide. Some passengers thought that a child went overboard. They were very concerned.

Without exception, these passengers told us that there was no information available from the cruise line or anywhere on the internet about the overboard.  Its was like there was a blackout imposed.

These individuals  seemed genuinely concerned about the passenger who died. These were not "rubberneckers" wanting to take part in some type of morbid gossip. They had seen bits and pieces of Cruise Critic Monkeysa sad spectacle during what was otherwise a pleasurable cruise.  They were worried when they went home. They wanted basic information about what happened around them and, in many ways, what happened to them to the extent that they and their children had witnessed an unsettling tragedy.  

Some of the people who contacted us said that there were initially some comments posted on the message boards at Cruise Critic.  But, according to the people contacting us, these comments were quickly deleted by Cruise Critic.

I have heard of these type of criticisms of Cruise Critic before. Message boards which contain information of potential embarrassment to the cruise lines are often pulled from the cruise-friendly Cruise Critic.    

So I went online to see if anyone was reporting on the HAL overboard other than this blog. 

What I found was interesting, 

There were several links indicating that there were a number of people who left comments on the Cruise Critic message boards. But when I clicked on the links, all of the links were disabled. First, there was the link on Google "Veendam-New Years cruise sad ending reported by a passenger …" There was the link "We had a strange last sea day, with a report of somebody falling past a window, a man-overboard signal, dropping a smoke flare and life ring, …" And there was the link "Person overboard on the Veendam New Years cruise??"

But clicking on all of these links led to an error message: "Invalid thread specified. If you followed a valid link, please notify the administrator."

The index to the threads under Holland America Line also contained no messages about the overboard. It had also apparently been scrubbed clean.

In my view, the Expedia-owned Cruise Critic is still the same online community of cruise fans who were exposed several years ago for being paid cruise line cheerleaders and shilling for Royal Caribbean on cruise reviews and message boards.

The cruise industry has suffered through lots of bad press in the past couple of years. Travel writers, most cruise bloggers, and other friends of the industry have leaned over backwards to give the cruise lines a break. But censoring cruise passengers who make legitimate inquiries on a message board relating to the cruise lines is a disservice to the cruising public. It perpetuates the lack of transparency which is part of the the cruise lines’ problem in the first place.

One of the passengers on the Veendam left us the following comment to our article:

"Thank you for the post, Jim. As a passenger that witnessed part of the discovery I do feel entitled to an explanation. While the crew seemed to handle this professionally, this was indeed a disturbing event. An explanation did not have to include the details, but may have at least provided some closure for at least those humans who were traumatized by "the incident" (to which it was referred by the captain). To carry on like nothing happened–on ship and in the media–was and continues to be even more disturbing."

The Costa Concordia disaster provided a disturbing insight into the unsafe operations of the cruise lines. Before the Concordia capsized, the cruise industry did not even have a requirement that cruise ships conduct a muster drill before the passengers set sail.  There were no restrictions to the bridge. The on board girlfriend of infamous Captain Schettino was reportedly in the bridge after the Concordia hit the rocks. And there was widespread confusion from the senior officers in the bridge all the way down to the crew members at the life boats.  

Can you imagine flying on an American Airlines 757 where the stewardess doesn’t bother to instruct Cruise Criticpassengers on evacuation and emergency procedures before take-off and the captain’s girlfriend hangs out in the cockpit?     

The image of panic and the ensuing death of both passengers and crew aboard the Concordia threatened to sink the cruise industry’s idyllic image of fun, family vacations on the high seas. In response, the cruise industry – lead by the Cruise Line International Association ("CLIA") – devised a public relations scheme to create the image that an "independent" panel of experts was objectively scrutinizing the situation and arriving at proposals to make cruising safer.

The reality, however, was that the so-called "independent" experts were really paid consultants for the cruise lines and were hired more for public relation reasons than to really analyze the obvious weaknesses in the cruise industry’s procedures.   

But with every new safety recommendations proposed throughout 2012, the travel agents and cruise specialists united for a collective "hurrah!" to ensure the public that cruising was safer than ever before. Leading the PR campaign was the popular on line cruise community Cruise Critic, owned by Expedia / TripAdvisor, which like a loyal cheerleader applauded everything the cruise industry announced.

Costa  Concordia Even more disappointing was the unabashed cheer-leading by USA TODAY’s Cruise Log which, although owned and operated by a major newspaper, might as well be a part of the cruise industry’s PR committee. Like Cruise Critic, Cruise Log was all-too-quick to publish whatever CLIA wanted reported in the news as the Gospel Cruise Truth.

Lacking in the Cruise Critic / Cruise Log discourse was any critical analysis by experienced and truly objective maritime experts about what the cruise industry was proposing. Neither Cruise Critic nor Cruise Log offered a single criticism, or dissenting view, regarding the post-Concordia safety recommendations. No one mentioned the fact that there was no consequence if any of the recommendations the cruise industry was proposing were ignored by a cruise line.

The recommendations remain just that – recommendations – with no governing body to impose fines or sentences if they are not followed. 

We here at Cruise Law News voiced our reservations throughout the year about some of these proposals, starting with the dubious and laughable "independent" nature of the so-called experts. We pointed out specific shortcomings of the ten point safety recommendations which you can read here, here and here.

With the Costa Concordia one-year anniversary less than a week away, the cruise industry is again gearing up its PR campaign to try and convince the public that it has made great strides in ensuring that a cruise vacation on the high seas is safe and sound. Cruise Log just published a puff piece extolling CLIA’s 10 safety recommendations, followed by an almost identical article published today by Cruise Critic which might as well have been written by publicists hired by CLIA and Expedia to Cruise Logencourage the public to cruise.

Ultimately, cheer-leading like this does more harm than good. Media and internet companies like Cruise Log and Cruise Critic are selfishly short-sighted in their unrestrained support and promotion of the cruise industry.  As matters now stand there is no oversight of the foreign-flagged cruise ships and foreign-incorporated cruise companies. The cruising public remains at risk. The public needs fewer cheerleaders and more watchdogs.  

Instead of an independent media watching over the cruise business and a community of independent thinkers with a healthy degree of skepticism, cruising is dominated by spineless journalists and a flock of sheep ready to follow the cruise lines over the next cliff.

This week I have been visiting my parents in El Dorado, Arkansas.  It is always great to get back to my roots in my home town in Southern Arkansas – which has about the nicest and friendliest people in the country.

Yesterday I ran out to a local thrift store to look at vintage books and records (I found a 1958 Elvis Presley LP – G.I. Blues – for 75 cents!)  When I was looking through a rack of $2 shirts, I ran across a shirt that made me stop in my tracks: "Cruise Critic Member – www.cruisecritic.com"   There it was, emblazened on a nice blue shirt, hanging on the rack in a store in my land-locked southern town in Arkansas.

Yes, Cruise Criticsomeone in my hometown in El Dorado was not only a member of Cruise Critic, but had thought enough of the on-line cruise community to own a shirt bearing the Cruise Critic name. 

I could not resist and took a photo of the shirt (photo left) with my Blackberry. 

Cruise Critic is the most popular cruise community in the world.  There are some 50,000 reviews of cruises and tens of thousands of community members who rate cruises, comment on which cruises are the best and the worst, and often are the first to report on cruise ship collisions and fires, passenger over boards and shipboard crimes.

In the short one year period my Cruise Law News (CLN) blog has been on-line, I have received more visitors from Cruise Critic members than any other site in the internet.

The Cruise Critic site has an enormous potential to effectuate positive change for cruise passengers and crew members.  The fact that there are good people in my little home town in Arkansas who are Cruise Critic members bears that out.  

The popular on line cruise community CruiseCritic.com recently ran an article "Top 10 Reasons To Cruise."  By the time I read reason number 3 – "Cruise Ships are Family Friendly" – I was repulsed enough that I felt compelled to explain why the Cruise Critic article was dangerously inaccurate.

Cruise Critic published the photo (below) of the "family friendly’ environment touted on cruise ships, with the photograph courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruises.  Unfortunately, Royal Caribbean has by Top Ten Reasons Not To Cruisefar the worst problem with sexual predators of any line we have ever seen. Children have been targeted by sexual predators in child centers and raped after leaving the centers and trying to get back to the cabins.    

No parent would ever send their kids to a teen center or leave them alone in a cabin if they knew what this cruise line knows – that sexual assaults occur frequently on cruise ships.    

So here’s the other side of the story – 10 Reasons Not to Cruise:

No. 1: Cruise Lines Are A Perfect Place To Sexually Abuse Children

No. 2: Cruise Ships Are A Perfect Place to Commit A Crime, And Get Away With It!

No. 3: Carnival, Royal Caribbean And NCL Are Corporate Felons

No. 4: If You Are A Victim On A Cruise Ship, The Cruise Line Will Treat You Like A Criminal

No. 5: If You Are Retired Or A Child, The Cruise Line Considers Your Life Worthless

No. 6:  If The Ship Doctor Kills You, Too Bad

No. 7:  Cruise Lines Exploit Foreign Crew Members, Like You’d Never Believe

No. 8:  Blackwater, Blackwater, Blackwater

No. 9:  Bunker Fuel – Nasty Tar Sludge!      

No. 10:  Cruise Lines Avoid All U.S. Taxes By Registering in Places Like Panama and Liberia.

If travel agents are going to hawk cruises by advertising all of the reasons why you should take your family on a cruise, trust us that we will provide you with the other side of the story. 

Make your own informed decision how to spend your vacation with your family.   

Tomorrow, we will discuss "Why Cruise Lines Are a Perfect Place to Sexually Abuse Children."

 

Credits:

Photograph          Royal Caribbean Cruises (via CruiseCritic.com)